October 16, 2015

Gifted or ADHD? The Surprising Truth

(Reposted from six years ago, but still relevant today)

If you think back over your childhood, your adolescence, your school years and the transition to adult-hood with fond memories, then this blog post is probably not for you. If you consider your personality to be mainstream; if you were woven seamlessly into the acceptable fabrics of society—the cottons, the denims, the silks, the cashmeres—then this blog post will only give you a little insight, a glimpse perhaps, into the inner weavings of the duck-cloths, the meshes, the lamés and the spandexes of the world.

I was one such misfit. I was smart, a borderline genius (which is not to brag, I would have preferred street smarts to book any day had I only known), but school bored me. I guess I was an atypical nerd, if such a thing is possible. I acknowledge I had an advantage in that I wasn’t exactly ugly and I was pretty athletic, but those pluses were mostly zeroed out by my underdeveloped social skills and overdeveloped intellect. Who wanted to hang out with the weird skinny blonde kid in hand-me-down clothes who always had her nose buried in a book or who hung out in the art room at lunch? Not very many of my peers, I can tell you that. Add to that a deep-seated naiveté that lingered into my late twenties, and you’ve got my particular brand of misfit.

So when I had kids of my own and started seeing reflections of my own miserable childhood, I did my best to help. My daughter grew up brilliant and beautiful, but just as much a social pariah as me. Did I fail? I wondered. What could I have done to prevent her pain? And wouldn’t that just make her a different person than she is now—didn’t she grow into one tough cookie who makes me proud? So what if she wasn’t a cheerleader? She was self-assured enough not to WANT to be one, unlike me. She grew up just fine, thank you very much. Her intolerant peers, the aggressive gangs of girls and boys that ran unchecked through her school and made her academic career a living hell, also made her strong.

Now my son, fifteen years younger than his sister, has burst onto the school scene with a whole different dynamic. Since preschool I’ve been scrambling to avoid the ADHD label. He’s a bizzy, bizzy boy and some days I despair of him, just, getting it. In preschool: No, my dear son, it is not acceptable for you to throw your shoes over the fence so you can watch the teacher fetch them for you, nor is peeing in the drain in the bathroom floor instead of the toilet amusing to anyone but you (well, okay, I confess that one still makes me chuckle in private). In kindergarten: Yes, my dear boy, t-ball can be a boring sport, but while you wait for the ball to come, would it kill you to just stand there instead of spinning around until you fall, pulling out tufts of grass, wearing your mitt on your head or kicking up dust clouds in the dirt?

Now he’s in the first grade. Two weeks in and we’ve already met with the principal, who didn’t come right out and SAY he thought my son had ADHD, but who gave a rather pointed example of his OWN struggle with it as a child. However, after what I went through and what I went through for my daughter, I was more prepared to be an advocate for my son. I had graphs, I had charts and I had excerpts from books written by experts. In fact, after the meeting, the principal sent me an email reiterating what he’d already told me: he’d never had a parent arrive at a meeting more prepared than I.

The reason I showed up armed to the teeth with information isn’t complicated. I won’t allow the establishment—the school system or the medical community—to label my son. Stamp four humiliating letters on his forehead, shove stimulants down his throat, and shunt him to the classes reserved for those who refuse, because they can’t help it, to cooperate. The disrupters, the clowns, the bizzy, bizzy bees.

I wasn’t just going into that meeting bristling with denial. No sir, I had a different theory, a theory both more palatable and more logical. My six-year-old reads at a third-grade level, or higher. When he was two, he could put a 100-piece puzzle together, no problem. If you can look past the fact that he never stops talking, to himself mostly, his vocabulary is astonishing. So aren’t ADHD kids kind of, I don’t know, dumb? I thought. What if you’ve got a combination smartie-pants-ants-in-your-pants? A bright kid who just can’t hold still, can’t seem to rein in his enthusiasm, be it for bugs or books or barreling around all over the place?

Enter my indomitable research capabilities. I’m a writer; I do this for a living (albeit a pre-successful living). Poor my memory may be, but I still have a fount of information to draw upon; information about this, that and the other thing obtained via books and the Internet for the sole purpose of giving my writing authenticity. Could there be another reason why I and my children (and various other members of my immediate family) are so darn smart and yet so exasperatingly…different?

It didn’t take me long to find the answer: an unqualified YES.

Kasimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist from the early nineteenth-century glory days of psychiatry, developed a concept after years of observation, research and study, that gifted children experience a phenomenon that he termed, “Overexcitabilities.” Gifted children, according to Dabrowski, aren’t just smart, they FEEL more than other kids. They are more sensitive, they respond more to stimuli, they are intensely passionate in ways that normal folks can’t always understand. He broke these overexcitabilities into five categories: Intellectual, where a child might be driven to solve problems, Imaginational, where the world is a child’s stage, Emotional, where the child carries the world’s problems on his/her shoulders, Sensual, where sight, sound, smell, taste and tactile sensations are overpowering to the child, and Psychomotor, where the child has so much energy, such a need to wiggle, jump, run, spin, do, do, do, that they are often misdiagnosed (yes, I said it, and I truly believe it) as ADHD.

A gifted child may experience one or all of the overexcitabilities. Not a disease or disorder that needs to be medicated into oblivion, but a sensory enhancement that causes a child to experience the world differently, sometimes radically so, from his/her peers.

(My personal tongue-in-cheek theory is that in order for the brains of intelligent people to get smart in the first place, something happens in the womb, maybe the developing frontal and parietal lobes needed more oomph, so they steal some essential neurons that would otherwise be used to foster communication between the areas of the brain that enable social interaction…but I digress, as I often do.)

Clues to my son’s particular overexcitabilities were not hard to find. As a baby, he gasped for breath if you blew into his face; as an infant, he refused to put his feet on the grass; bright sunlight makes him sneeze; and I had to cut all the tags out of every shirt he owns—Sensual. My boy is impulsive, he’ll take action so quickly he doesn’t leave himself time to filter the potential consequences through his brain; he is incapable of preventing his body from showing his emotions—he jumps up and down, hands flapping uncontrollably when he’s excited; he absolutely loves to laugh, but once he gets started, it’s hard for him to stop—psychomotor. I hear some kids outgrow the constant questions, but my son’s motto is like a drumbeat in the background of our lives, “Who-what-where-when-why-how?”—Intellectual. And the drama! Sheesh, the kid won’t quit with the stories and the wild scenarios and the intentional fibs to see what will happen—Imaginational.

Yep, I reckon he’s got four of the five, but I’m just grateful to have avoided the Emotional category. I got more than enough of THAT from my daughter!


If any of this resonated with you, I recommend you read “A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children,” which was a real eye-opener for me. This is a book written by today’s professionals, not the same folks who learned in medical school back in the 80’s and 90’s to prescribe mind-numbing medication, but the cutting-edge researchers who tend to shun Big Pharma’s answer to the ADHD crisis. One-pill-fits-all is not a given if you have a bizzy bizzy child of your own, especially if your kid is smarter than your average bear.

Yes, even today’s experts admit it’s possible, though significantly less likely, for a child to be both gifted AND to have ADHD or some other learning disorder, and sometimes the disorder can even mask the giftedness, like dyslexia. No matter what combination of wonderful your child is, be the best advocate for him/her that you can by educating yourself. Don’t let anyone label your child without a thorough evaluation—and you should learn what that entails, too!

I now think of myself and my children not as patched together from misfit fabrics like some quirky quilt, but cut from the colorful and complicated brocades, damasks and tapestries that make life such a diverse experience. I found the tools to aid my son as he works at developing the necessary skills to blend into his school environment: patience, persistence, understanding and most of all, knowledge.